This is such a difficult review to write because it has such a powerful connection to so many people. That being said, I also have to review based on what I saw and felt and not the people around me. When it comes to the subject of history I am reasonably ignorant; it has never been a subject that has interested me and therefore my knowledge is limited. However, the atrocities that happened in Cambodia by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge is something that I have some knowledge of because one of the texts that I studied in Year 12 English was a book called First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung. It still remains (thirteen years on) in my top three favourite books and certainly the most powerful I have ever read. It’s a tough book to read and I remember crying through it on more than one occasion; I recommend anyone reading it. I researched a lot about Cambodia and the Pol Pot regime at the time and have always had visiting Phnom Penh on my bucket list. Why is all of this important? Let me discuss A Requiem for Cambodia and I’ll explain.
Bangsokol looks at and addresses the work of the Khmer Rouge by genocide survivors Him Sophy and Rithy Panh. Together they combine film, orchestra, chorus, Khmer instrumentalists and vocalists to tell their story. Draped across the back of every audience member’s seat is a white shroud that you are invited to drape across your shoulders for the entirety of the performance. “The white bangsokol shroud lays upon everyone’s body… Once this skin is shed, bliss arises, relieving all pain and pollution, taking you far away from misfortune to tread the path towards happiness.”
Bangsokol has video footage of the Khmer Rouge and a number of abstract clips while accompanied by the sounds I have previously mentioned. The problem I felt with this production was that it felt like these were rarely linked. It felt as if the video footage, which for me was slightly repetitive and didn’t convey the story as much as it probably should, was a separate entity to the soundscape, which was a separate entity to the Buddhist ritual (I assume) that was happening at the front of the stage with the rocks and blocks of wood. Therefore, it felt disjointed as the production continued. I know nothing about the Buddhist belief system and therefore didn’t understand what was happening at the front of the stage. There was also a moment were the two smot chanters, who were fantastic throughout the show, spoke to two children in a language that I don’t speak and therefore also had no idea what was going on.
For a large chunk of the show, there was too much of a cultural abyss for me. I have no problem learning about that culture but Bangsokol was performed in a way that didn’t inform and therefore I didn’t know what was happening and found it difficult to connect. There were many in the audience that did understand the things that were happening and I would suggest this was the case because they had a stronger cultural understanding. That being said, I did understand the ending and the idea of the bangsokol shroud, the message of hope and being kind to yourself and others came across strongly in the last moments of the show.
Ultimately, I felt Sophy and Panh assumed knowledge and for probably 95% of the audience, they would be right to do that. However, for myself, and my theatre buddy, we were left feeling very little about the show. This is a very difficult thing for me to say because I am saying this about a piece of work that has such a deep and personal connection for many people but also about a piece based on these two men’s lives and the horrible things they have been through. However, I say it for one reason and one reason only and it is this, I am speaking through the eyes of someone who does know a little bit about these tragedies, but there are many my age and younger that don’t know anything about it. This is an important story that shouldn’t ever been forgotten and as Sophy mentions in his statement “I wrote Bangsokol to help bring peace to the world, today and in the future.” In order for this to happen, Bangsokol needs to be more accessible and clear to people who don’t have a cultural connection to Cambodia and if they can find this, then the incredibly talented performers will be a lot closer to this goal.